The Depths by Denise Levertov is a three-stanza work that uses contradictions and metaphor to express how multi-layered life can be. The overview of life includes good things and bad things, proving that life is filled with varying elements that exist in both positive and negative states of being. At some points, in fact, it is hard to discern what the good and bad are within the poem’s situations, which helps to solidify this contrasting method of expressing differentiation. To Levertov, it seems, life is neither primarily filled with good or bad, but its “depths” are still worth “tast[ing].” This thought is the theme of the poem. You can read the full poem here.
The Depths Analysis
An interesting thing that is happening in this first stanza is a reversal of ideas. A “fog” is often noted as something that is a hindrance, but in this work, it is treated as something quite different in comparison to what would typically be noted as something welcome—“light.” This “fog” is “white” and creates “flakes of white ash in the world’s hearth.” This makes the “fog” feel decorative and lovely—something clean and worthwhile. The “light,” by contrast, is an “abyss” that “is revealed” only when “the white fog burns off.” This indicates that the “light” is the “everlasting” element that awaits after the “fog,” but in a manner that seems as though the “light” is a doom of sorts. In this, the poem thus far reads as though the “fog” is the better state of being, and “light[‘s]” “abyss” is waiting somewhere underneath.
From there, however, “fog” is treated in a lesser manner when it is referred to as “cobwebs.” This notion of “cobwebs” comes with connotations of a lack of necessity, uncleanness, and age, and these ideas are in very real contrast to something that is “white” and hides an “abyss.” These “cobwebs,” though, are still referenced as “flakes” against “the black fir trees,” which again represents a contrast of “light” to dark. Given the complexity of the parallels that can be drawn from the lines, it is hard to define what truly is “light” and dark—good or bad—to the narrator’s way of thinking.
What this could entail is that the author believes that in life, the good and bad are often gray areas where “light” and dark blend, perhaps to an “ash”-like color, and what remains is a collection of varying elements that do not need to necessarily make sense. It does not matter, for instance, if the “fog” is a “cobweb” or a refuge from an “abyss.” Whatever it is, it provides an element to life, becoming the “ash in the world’s hearth.” Every element, then, is relevant, and the lines between good and bad are undefined to the author, much like there is little structure to the size and rhyme scheme of the lines.
The confusion of elements continues in this stanza when the “[c]old of the sea is” noted as the “counterpart to this great fire,” but the “ocean” is noted as having a “burning cold.” This presents a bit of a paradox since the only thing that is noted to have any sort of heat, specifically, is the “ocean,” but the other body of water is noted as the heat’s “counterpart.” The reader would logically know that the “ocean” does not actually have the “burn” of the “fire,” but the word choices make the ideas overlap almost into chaos. Why would a “sea” “counter[act]” “fire,” but an “ocean” “burn[s]?”
The answer, perhaps, could reside in the size of the bodies of water. Because “the sea is” smaller, it can provide a gentler touch to calm the “fire,” but the grandness of the “ocean” makes it come with worse “burning” dangers and hazards. This would be a subtle comment that moderation could be key in life, which is reasonable given the already noted theme at work of good and bad intermingling. Just as deciding what is good or bad in the first stanza is difficult, here the idea of amount is brought into the discussion to provide guidance. Perhaps, to the narrator, good or bad, “light” or dark, and hot and “cold” may interplay in a meaningful life, so long as moderation exists to “counteract” varying elements, thus creating balance.
For the final lines of this stanza, the narrator brings in first-person perspective with “we,” which indicates that the themes at work within the poem are universal—that regardless of the reader, the narrator believes they will relate to the concepts. The confusion, again, arises with what “we” do in that section—that after “[p]lunging out of the burning cold of ocean we enter an ocean of intense noon.”
This seems odd, given that the narrator refers to “enter[ing] an ocean” after coming out of “an ocean.” This could speak to the cyclical nature of life, that the interplay of good and bad elements could be something that follows us from one moment to the next. Like one “ocean” is exchanged for another, one scenario is exchanged for another as well, all with a familiar notion of so many blending elements. Each scenario may be different—like the second “ocean” was not noted as “burning”—but the key ideas of good and bad intermingling still carry a similarity throughout numerous events, according to the poem.
The final sentence of this stanza utilizes alliteration with the “s” sounds—”Sacred salt sparkles.” This draws attention to this line, and since that attention is gained in what may be the most unifying concept as of yet in the poem, it reinforces the universal quality that the first-person perspective brought to the table. Given that this “s” is a soft sound, this choice of word beginnings hints a softness of ideas, as in the narrator is allowing the reader to see that this idea of “[s]acred salt” is a good thing. Essentially, then, the reader can infer that this happening “on our bodies” represents a glimmering goodness that comes with the varying elements of life. Overall, the impact that these varying elements have on us is for our benefit—that it is “[s]acred” and makes us “sparkle” and shine.
The first two lines of this stanza are drenched in metaphor and contradiction when “mist” is noted as able to “wrap” around people “in fine wool.” Since “wool” is quite tangible, even scratchy to some, it certainly is not the texture that one would expect from an elusive “mist.” This is another mismatch of elements that addresses that life is a combination of elements rather than simply good things or only bad things.
This confusion continues in that there is no specific idea about life that is noted as what the narrator is comparing to “mist,” but it can be inferred that life itself could be this “mist” since it is intangible and mysterious, which seems to coincide with the narrator’s comments on life. A “mist” is neither substantial nor insubstantial as you can see it, but not touch it like you would “wool,” and it is not altogether a good or bad thing. It is just a blend of factors that make for a mysterious situation, like the unknowns of life that are constructed on blended elements.
Another irony is at play when the final lines state the hope that “the taste of salt recall to” people “the great depths about” them. The irony is found in that often, a person might choose a different kind of flavor than “salt” to express a positive element in life, like how sweet it is. Instead, this poem uses something more savory and allows the reader to understand that, once more, it is not only about the good things—or the sweet things—in life that make it a worthwhile thing to “taste.” Rather, the author uses what might be the most common seasoning, and one that has cleansing properties as well a “taste” value. Perhaps it is that commonality and possibility that make it such a wonderful choice for a poem about multiple possibilities and blends.
Overall, this combination of elements is noted as the primary theme of the poem since all of the elements noted— “fog,” “mist,” “sea,” “salt,” “wool”…—combine to balance the positives and negatives into a blur of components. Essentially, life can be pleasant and worth “tast[ing],” but the “depths” remain vast and varied.
About Denise Levertov
Born in 1923, Denise Levertov wrote poems on varying topics. She did not have a standard education, but she explored literature in her youth. Beyond her writing, she was also a nurse during World War II, and she began publishing her poetry soon after that experience. She passed away in 1997, the cause of death being lymphoma.